Can Atheists Practice Yoga?

Yoga is an excellent form of exercise which builds strength and flexibility. The practice is also known for promoting general wellness by supporting the mind-body connection. Yet because this ancient exercise has deep meditative, spiritual or mystical roots, many people wonder if yoga is a form of religion. Which invites the question: can atheists practice yoga? How about Christians, Jews or Muslims?

The question of whether yoga is a religion is not a new one. It has been asked and answered many times, often with different responses. The most common answer is that yoga can be combined with religion or easily practiced without religious belief.

Though Americans often think of yoga as one specific form of exercise, the term actually refers to a wide range of yoga styles. Each style has its own benefits. Ashtanga is a more energetic, vigorous form of yoga. Iyengar uses longer holds and props to let practitioners deepen their poses, and Bikram uses a sauna-like environment to help burn calories fast.

While Ashtanga, Iyengar and Bikram (or variations of each) are yoga styles that are commonly found in the United States, there are many other practices, including several that are more oriented toward spirituality than physical exercise.

The spiritual or meditative elements of yoga mean many different things to different people. To me, and to many others, the meditative aspect of yoga is an inward journey. It is a way to find inner balance and personal strength. Still, as an atheist, some comments made in yoga classes can make me uncomfortable. Fortunately, the answer is usually as simple as finding a new yoga instructor.

Some yoga instructors rely more heavily on mysticism and spirituality (e.g. chakras or kundalini). On the other end of spectrum, many yoga instructors (at least those in the West) also struggle with yoga's connection to spirituality, religion and god(s). Finding a yoga instructor who has a compatible outlook can make a difference in the effectiveness of the practice.

In my own Ashtanga-style classes, I've been very comfortable with my instructor's approach to teaching. Like many instructors, she promotes and supports each student's personal journey--both in the physical and meditative aspects. We chant an occasional om and offer namaste at the end of class, and that doesn't bother me.*

There's generally a moment at the end of class where everyone moves their hands, in prayer position, in front of their "third eye" (forehead) while the teacher speaks briefly about being open to our intuitive selves. During my first class, I felt a little uncomfortable with this concept, but then I realized that the "intuition" of my "third eye" can easily be compared to the emotional brain that is described in Jonah Leher's book How We Decide. I have a tendency to over-analyze pretty much everything, so this quiet moment reminds me to trust the intuitive side of my mind as well.

For atheists, I don't see anything wrong with practicing yoga--and even exploring its meditative aspects--without ascribing to any underlying religion.

When it comes to believers, some Christians are concerned about the threat of yoga on their beliefs, Islam has banned yoga for Muslims, and at least some Jews seems to also worry that yoga is not kosher. But many people take a different approach, and believers of any faith will have to find those answers within themselves.

Yoga offers many health benefits, particularly when combined with meditation and controlled breathing (pranayama). In my opinion, the spiritual or meditative aspects of various yoga styles do not have to be in conflict with an agnostic, atheist, humanist or otherwise secular lifestyle. But deciding to practice yoga is ultimately a personal choice.


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* While I'm not religious, I've read many beautiful and inspiring passages in the Upanishads, which may make it a bit easier for me to accept the oms and namastes during class.

10 comments:

  1. It depends on their preference. It's a choice for them if they practice it or not.

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  2. I agree completely as a new Yogi and and veteran Humanist/atheist.

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  3. Thank you for this post! I do agree with all the ideas you have presented in this post related to yoga . There are various yoga styles available on internet but the main problem is that we have no idea which styles of yoga right are for us.

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  4. I think there's nothing wrong with practicing it. And yes I agree that it's all about your preferences.

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  5. An atheist will never ask that question. He can do whatever he wants!!!

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  6. Namaste is a hindi word for greeting. It has no religious connototation. Chanting OM has an immediate calming effect which is reason enough to do it!! No need to believe in spiritual crap!!

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  7. I agree that there is nothing wrong with an atheist practicing yoga. I even tend seek out instructors with a more meditative (which some might describe as spiritual) approach. It doesn't bother me at all that some consider yoga a religious practice. In fact one of the things I appreciate about Hinduism is that it seeks to connect the spiritual and physical (think Kama Sutra) rather than classifying the physical as "bad" or "unpure" like Western religions tend to do.

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    1. *impure (please excuse my bad grammar!)

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  8. Hi! Thank you for this post. I am an atheist and a skeptic, and yet I enjoy the weirdest of all yogas... Kundalini. I do not believe that my aura exists let alone can be magically improved, nor do I believe that I have chakras or that they can be aligned. I do, however, like to meditate. (Meditation has proven positive effects on mood.) Kundalini has a lot of chanting and movement - two things that get me nice and tranced out. During a Kundalini class, I'm much better able to meditate.

    I REALLY have to ignore almost everything that is said in class - but for me it's worth it. For my husband, (who is actually less of a strident atheist than I am,) it is not worth it.

    We all pick and choose what we do and how!

    I hope one day to teach an atheists' yoga class. I'm gonna have to get creative to make that happen - but it seems like a need.

    Cheers!

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  9. If you get into the deeper history and philosophies of yoga you will find that there is a lot of atheistic thought speculated throughout. Among many rishis and siddhars, what we have left is a natural law of karma (with or without reincarnation) that does not need nor have a creator or central authority but is pure action and causation as a non-personal working of the system. Yoga is to clear the vasanas (tendencies) that lead to unintended karma. Basically it's about being in control of ones self, ones mind as well as ones body as the two are connected. No need for a god.

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